Conquering The Cuesta de Lipan
Challenges and rewards of cycling a high-altitude mountain pass
I have been captivated by the thought of riding the Cuesta de Lipan since 2008 when ExperiencePlus! first offered the Bicycling Northern Argentina (Plus! The Ruins of Quilmes) tour. This famous road snakes 21 miles and climbs nearly 6,500 feet until it reaches the summit sitting at 13,678 feet (4170 meters). As a mountain-loving cyclist, I can think of few things greater then ascending the final feet of a high-altitude mountain pass such as Cuesta de Lipan. Though this climb is not for the faint of heart, it delivers an unforgettable feeling of accomplishment when taking in the stunning view from the top.
The Cuesta de Lipan ride begins in Purmamarca, a tiny village nestled in the arms of the poly-chromatic hills known as the Cerro de los Siete Colores. The village church, dedicated to Santa Rosa de Lima, was built in 1648 and stands sentry before what, upon first glance, appears to be a miniature city but is in fact a massive, above-ground cemetery. Next to the church is one of the most important symbols of the province, a 620-year-old Algarrobo (black locust) tree. Not particularly tall at just forty-two feet, its canopy stretches over one hundred feet inviting passersby to sit and enjoy the shaded views of a colorful and bustling outdoor market. Located in the heart of this small village, the market features pottery figurines, woolens, textiles, and leather products produced locally and in nearby Bolivia and Chile. The surrounding town square has a number of restaurants with outdoor patios perfect for enjoying a cold beer while watching people go about their daily routine.
Ride Day — Cuesta de Lipan.
I woke to inviting blue skies and threw on a few extra layers hoping the sun would soon make its way to warm the shaded valley floor. Thankfully, less than five kilometers into the ride the temperatures quickly shifted, anything more than shorts, a jersey, and sunscreen felt excessive under the sun’s intensifying glow. As I rode through the valley I looked out at the changing landscape ahead and was struck by the awesome power of water. Though the “Rio Grande” appeared as a trickling stream there was a deep scar in the land with sections of steep-sided ravines and waterfalls which were undeniable proof of water’s force.
As I climbed “Ruta 52” there was an occasional street sign indicating a turn for a “town” 1 or 2 kilometers from the main road. This would not have been unusual except for the fact that there were no roads, just a dry river bed and tire tracks that led upriver. Though Purmamarca lacks any paved roads – other than the road I was on – I couldn’t help but wonder what the town at the end of these tributary paths would look like and speculate about what happens to the occupants in a heavy rain.
Not long into the ride I had my first vicuña – or was it a guanaco, sighting? These wild camelids are a relative of the llama and live in high alpine areas of the Andes. Having never seen either animal before it added to the exotic feeling and anticipation of things to come. I excitedly pulled out my camera not knowing that I could have saved my photo efforts because a small herd would welcome me when I finally reached the top of the pass.
By this point in my ride the ExperiencePlus! group had separated so I was delighted to see our support van approach with tour leader Santiago’s smiling face hanging out the passenger side window as he cheered me on. After checking in with the tour leaders to see how everyone was progressing, they tempted me forward with a homemade energy bar and water bottle refill. Re-energized, I set off again with only the distant sound of water and my own thoughts to keep me company. Before long I settled into a rhythm and felt grateful to the engineers who built this well-graded, smooth road– “hey, this isn’t going to be so hard” I thought to myself. Twenty-six switchbacks and twenty kilometers to go – and I felt great!
Suddenly, the wind started to blow. I hadn’t seen a tree, or any other natural wind block since I’d stripped my extra clothing layers just outside of Purmamarca. I took a break to consider my fate and catch my breath all the while hoping the wind would pass as quickly as it came. I could see the most challenging portion of the switchbacks sitting just above me, the sight was a sobering reminder of the challenge ahead. The wind continued to blow and my excitement shifted into unease. I considered the wind direction, looked at the switchbacks again and with a fools hope I “logically” concluded that a headwind would shift into a tailwind at each turn of a switchback. About this time the ExperiencePlus! van pulled up again and the enthusiasm of the tour leaders at my progress proved infectious. I pedaled off with new found energy. As I rode on the switchbacks afforded wonderful views back down the valley which helped keep my mind focused on something other than breathing. An occasional stone house appeared in the distance and the faint bark of a dog told me that someone was likely home. A rare sign of civilization at 11,500 feet.
Riding passes is a mental game and an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
Would I be fueled by adversity or would it wear me down? I was about to find out because I spotted a sign just ahead indicating that I was about to enter a new province. I assumed that this boundary line meant I was about to reach the top of the pass. Reason can fall to the wayside during times of great challenge. In this moment I believed what I needed to, even though I knew I hadn’t ridden far enough to be close to the top. It was easy to ignore the facts until I rounded the bend and saw the road snaking its way up and into the horizon. Disheartened I took the opportunity to take a break and told myself there was no option but to keep riding and that if I kept my faith, the Madonna del Ghisello (patron saint of cyclists) would eventually help me.
Two more bends and I spotted a herd of llamas behind a rock fence about a kilometer ahead. Looking forward to a distraction I pedaled a little faster and in the next instant a van pulled up near the gate and a group of about 12 people exited excited to take photos of “my” llamas. Before I had time to get too grumpy about what I saw as an intrusion one of them shouted in Spanish asking if I needed water, still riding I indicated that I had plenty and thanked him. Then, something even more wonderful happened — the entire group began cheering and waving me on. I laughed (yes, there may have even been a tear) and sat a little straighter in the saddle and picked up my pedal stroke. Though my limited Spanish vocabulary left me unable to convey just how much their cheers meant to me, I waved with gusto and shouted my thanks. Then I gave a silent thank you and nod to the Madonna!
A few more kilometers passed uneventfully and then, just ahead… the top. I had completely lost track of how many hours I’d been climbing, but as I finally reached the summit the struggle was already falling from my consciousness. Suddenly all I could think about was what an amazing ride. What an amazing country. What amazing people I’d had the pleasure of meeting along the way.
Vicuña grazed near the summit sign and though I wasn’t able to get myself, the sign, and the vicuña into a single picture it was remarkable to have them there. Looking over the pass, towards Chile, I could see what unmistakably had to be the Salinas Grande, our ultimate destination. My fellow riders and I partook in a weirdly moving celebration (endorphins anyone?) as we embraced each other and our good fortune at being alive in such a beautiful place. Then we donned all of the layers we’d shed hours before and headed down the other side thrilled by life’s possibilities.
Book by November 15th, 2019 and save $200 per person on you next bicycle tour in Argentina.
Highlights: Ruins of Tilcara–the Pucará, Salta, Purmamarca’s Cerro de Siete Colores – the Mountain of Seven Colors, UNESCO World Heritage Site Quebrada de Humahuaca, Geological formations at Quebrada de las Conchas, Colorful deserts, Incan ruins, Rides through deserts, lush green valleys, quiet villages, and wine country, Cafayate’s wine country.
Bicycling Northern Argentina (8-day)
Sep 5-12, 2020
Bicycling Northern Argentina Plus! Ruins of Quilmes (12-day tour)
Sep 5-16, 2020